Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019
Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
As common as the turkey and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce that we enjoyed this past week is the post-feasting nap. Many people, myself included, have pointed to the amino acid tryptophan as the reason everyone is sleepy after the Thanksgiving feast, but apparently that’s a myth. According to WebMD, a pretty reputable source of medical information on the internet, turkey doesn’t have any more tryptophan than chicken. You never hear of anyone getting sleepy after a grilled chicken breast! In fact, the protein in turkey helps keep blood sugar levels in check and can actually prevent grogginess. So what’s the real culprit? What is the real reason people are so sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal? Overindulgence. We are sleepy simply because we eat too much!
The post-Thanksgiving dinner coma is a timely metaphor for a spiritual condition we are being warned about in our scripture readings for this first Sunday in the season of Advent.
First we hear St. Paul tell the Romans that now is the moment for them to “wake from sleep.” He encourages them to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, to live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” He encourages them to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Here wakefulness is being contrasted with the spiritual sleepiness of overindulgence. Spiritual sleepiness means living solely for the pursuit of pleasure, drinking too much, indulging every urge, every appetite without regard to what is holy or healthy. Wakefulness, on the other hand, means being awake to Christ, paying attention to his presence and his promises.
In our gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about the final coming of his kingdom. He clearly says that about that day and hour NO ONE knows. Then he goes on to emphasize the importance of being ready, of staying awake. He says that before the final coming of his kingdom it will be like the days of Noah. People were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. In other words, they were carrying on with their daily lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, except that if you remember the story, the people in Noah’s day were doing all of this while oblivious to the reality of God. They had rejected God. There was no one left who had faith in God except one man, Noah. Everyone saw Noah building his ark and laughed at him on their way to the Black Friday sales.
This is what it will be like at the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus says. People will be busy indulging themselves, serving themselves, living for themselves, and they will fall asleep to the presence of God. Jesus says that some will be so spiritually sleepy that they will miss the coming kingdom altogether. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming!”
It is a bit of a paradox, or an irony if you prefer, that leading up to Christmas, one of the two biggest days on the Christian calendar, we find ourselves in a season that is constantly trying to lull us into a spiritual slumber. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, we are constantly being tempted to overindulge in things that distract us from Christ, things that make us too spiritually sleepy to prepare for his coming.
This is why we have the season of Advent! This is why we need it! Advent means “to come.” We are reminded again and again through the season of Advent to stay awake, to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming among us: at Christmas, to be sure, but also at his final coming, as well as his coming among us even now through Word and Sacrament.
There is much talk of cultural appropriation in our society today. Well, it seems that Advent is being culturally appropriated by the world around us to do the opposite of what it is intended to do. For example, I saw a story on the Today Show’s website last week that caught my eye. It was about Advent. I was so excited! They were talking about Advent on the Today Show! The story was called, “The 52 Best Advent Calendars for 2019.” Well, I scrolled through all 52 of them, and you know what? Only ONE of them had anything even remotely to do with Jesus. There were lots of candy Advent calendars, of course: Reese’s and M&Ms and chocolates shaped like stormtroopers. There were the popular LEGO Advent calendars, with 24 little LEGO things to build. Then things got really crazy. There was an Advent calendar with 24 different little bottles of hot sauce. One was called a “Manvent” calendar and was filled with spicy nuts and beef jerky. There was a Barbie Advent calendar which comes with a Barbie doll and 24 different items of clothing for her. One was called – I kid you not – the “NYX Professional Love Lust Disco Greatest Hits Lip Advent Calendar.” It has 24 different kinds of lipstick! There were Advent calendars with 24 different kinds of wine, 24 different kinds of beer, 24 different kinds of liquors. Again, out of these 52 so-called Advent calendars, only ONE had any kind of reference to Jesus Christ. The rest were all counting down to nothing! They were just an excuse to indulge!
“As in the days of Noah,” Jesus said, people will be eating and drinking, paying no attention to God. “Keep awake, therefore!”
Or as Paul writes: “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness.” “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to satisfy its desires.”
It’s easy to point our fingers at the culture around us, but you know what they say – whenever you point your finger at someone you always have three fingers pointing back at you. The truth is, we are just as likely to fall asleep to God’s presence as anyone else. We don’t come to church because we are better than those people buying those silly so-called Advent calendars. We come because we need to wake up too! We too are tempted to overindulge in eating and drinking and shopping and reveling and indulging in ways that make us spiritually sleepy. We get busy with all kinds of things this time of year that might be fun, but that obscure Christ rather than draw us closer to him.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The feasting and shopping and revelry of this season is not inherently bad or wrong. Advent doesn’t exist to wag its finger at our celebrating. Advent is not a blue version of the Grinch, seeking to squelch our joy. Instead Advent seeks to direct it towards the reason for our celebrating. It seeks to keep us awake to the coming of our Lord Jesus, the only source of true joy!
We mark the time with devotional candles and calendars because it keeps us mindful of Christ’s first coming as the baby in the manger, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
We gather for worship both on Sundays and on Wednesdays because we know Christ comes to us even now through Word and Sacrament, to give us his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. We come to church because it is the ark. And even though people laugh at it and mock it and ignore it, we know it is the vessel of our salvation.
And today, as we kick off this season, we are reminded that we are being prepared for a deeper salvation that is still on its way. As Saint Paul writes, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.” Christ’s final kingdom is yet to come. With every day that passes we are one day closer to the healing and restoration of all things. Advent teaches us to live in joyful anticipation of this promise being fulfilled. Chocolates shaped like stormtroopers can bring temporary happiness, but the promise of Christ’s final coming gives us lifetime’s worth of hope and joy.
So let us not overindulge in things that make us spiritually sleepy! Both Paul and Jesus warn us today that there is a spiritual slumber that can result in missing out on the coming kingdom.
Let all our celebrating this season point us to Christ Jesus.
Let us stay awake to his presence even now, for through his Word he renews us in his promise, and in his Supper he gives us a foretaste of the feast to come.
On Wednesdays during the Advent season (Dec. 4, 11, and 18) we will be gathering at Noon and 6pm for worship services and soup suppers. Our theme for this year is “Hope for a Hurting World. Through inspiring stories from our ministry partners around the world, we will hear how Christ’s coming brings hope in the midst of challenges and sorrows. We’ll go to Russia, Peru, and Uganda during the messages, and enjoy treats from those countries as part of our soup suppers. Holden Evening Prayer will be our liturgy, along with a hymn from our featured country. Invite your friends to join you for a three hope-filled Wednesdays as we prepare to celebration the Nativity of our Lord.
When you are grieving the death of a loved one, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. On Monday, December 9 from 1:30-3:30 Oak Harbor Lutheran Church will welcome Bereavement Coordinator David Bieniek from WhidbeyHealth Hospice Care for a two-hour gathering to gain ideas for navigating the season more comfortably. There will be time to create a keepsake in memory of your loved one. The event is free and open to the public.
Would you like to bless someone this Christmas? Visit the Sharing Tree in our narthex. Choose a tag, purchase and wrap the gift, and place it under the tree with the tag on the outside. Gifts must be returned by December 15. Thank you for participating in this year’s Sharing Tree!
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 24, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s a reason they called it “the Skull.” Not only is the skull a symbol of death still today, but the hill just outside of Jerusalem was actually shaped like a skull, which was darkly fitting given what happened on the top of that hill. Criminals were crucified there. They had their hands and feet nailed to beams of wood, and then they were lifted up to hang from their wounds. They were stripped naked to add to the public humiliation. Their crimes were written on signs and posted above their heads as a deterrent to others. Just like a hanging in the Old West or an execution in medieval Europe, people came to watch. They came to taunt, to mock these criminals as they died, getting in their last jeers and curses.
People who were crucified didn’t die from the holes in their hands and feet – not directly. They died from asphyxiation, from lack of oxygen. You see, people would hang from their crosses for hours, and over time the weight of their bodies pressed down on their rib cages, getting heavier and heavier with every passing hour, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. You could push yourself up with your hands and feet to take the pressure off and get some breath, but you could only do that for so long with nails stuck through them, and so you would eventually suffocate.
What happened over and over again on the placed they called the Skull is arguably the most cruel way human beings have ever come up with to put someone to death. That this was done to Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, makes our gospel reading for today an account of the darkest day in human history.
But even there – even at the place called the Skull – something beautiful happened. Even on this darkest day in human history, as Jesus hung there naked and bloodied and dying and seemingly powerless, even there we can see the power and glory of Christ our King. It is all there in a beautiful exchange of words.
There were lots of words spoken there at the Skull. The leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers mocked Jesus, saying, “Here’s your wine, O great and glorious king!” and then giving him wine that had gone rancid. They put a sign over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” It was all part of the joke. Even one of the other criminals was deriding Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” These words added plenty of insult to the already excruciating injuries Jesus was enduring. (Excruciating literally means “from the cross”)
But then something beautiful happened. Then there was a beautiful exchange of words giving us a glimpse of the strange power of this king of ours. There was this beautiful moment between Jesus and the other criminal being crucified beside him. In his weekly commentary on the lectionary readings an old professor of mine called this exchange a diamond on a dung hill.
The second criminal begins by making a confession of sin. He rebukes the first criminal, saying, “Don’t you fear God? Don’t you know that we have been condemned justly? We are getting what we deserve for our deeds!” He knows why he is on a cross. He knows he has broken the law. He confesses the truth about himself.
But then he goes from a confession of sin to a confession of faith. He confesses that Jesus was innocent: “But this man,” he said of Jesus, “has done nothing wrong!” And then, amazingly, he confesses his faith that Jesus is a king! He confesses his faith that Jesus has a kingdom, and that in spite of their current situation there on the Skull, his kingdom will come. He confesses his faith that Jesus is who he says he is. He is the savior, and he believes that this savior can even save him.
All of this is found in what he says next: He turns to Jesus – and remember that every breath of someone being crucified is precious, every breath is numbered! He turns to Jesus and with one of those last breaths he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And without question, without hesitation, without a new member class, Jesus turns to him and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Do you understand what is happening here? Paradise is the same word used in the Bible to describe the Garden of Eden before the Fall, back before sin and death came into the world. Jesus is promising him a place in that Paradise. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where there is no sin or death anymore. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where people live forever in right relationship with God.
And when will all of this happen? Does he have to hang onto life for another day or two to show that his faith is legit? Will he have to endure a thousand years of purgatory first to get clean from all of that sin?
No! When will this happen? “Today,” Jesus says! In fact, it is already beginning right then and there on the hill called the Skull as he confesses both his sin and his faith, which brings him into right relationship with God. It is already beginning right then and there on the cross as he hears this word from Jesus which says, your faith in me is enough. Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Such beautiful words! Such a beautiful moment. This exchange is indeed a diamond on a dung hill!
When we’re on that dung hill, sometimes we wonder where God is. When we’re on the hill called the Skull, we wonder if this King is really in charge. When we’re bearing crosses of our own, struggling to catch our breath because of anxiety, or grief, or pain, or fear, we might wonder if Jesus is really the powerful King we claim he is.
If Jesus is such a great and mighty king, why is his church so despised and mocked and ridiculed?
If Jesus is both a loving and powerful king, why do so many bad things happen? Why do babies die of a stupid fungus at Children’s Hospital in Seattle? Why did that wonderful young man from Mighty to Save Ministries die in a car accident when he was doing so much good for others? Why do our loved ones get cancer? Why are human beings so cruel to each other? Why do they so often seem to get away with it?
These are the questions we ask when we’re on the dung hill, when we’re on the hill called the Skull, when we’re bearing our crosses. These are the kinds of questions I am asked all the time as a pastor.
And you know what? I don’t have an answer. Sure, the Bible tells us a bit about why the world is like it is. But it only does so in broad strokes. When someone asks why a specific thing happened to a specific person, I have no answers.
But even if I did, would it help? If I could tie it all together with a nice tight theological explanation, would it really help? Would it really take away anyone’s pain?
I don’t have any answers for those hard questions, but because of this beautiful exchange of words between Jesus and this criminal, I can tell you this: your king is not far from you in your times of suffering. He is right there beside you. Jesus didn’t come to wear a crown of jewels and precious metals. He came to wear a crown of thorns, that he might take all your sin and suffering on himself. He didn’t come to sit on a velvet throne. His throne is a cross, that you might turn to him as you bear crosses of your own. He didn’t come to save himself, as the people taunted. He came to save you.
Because of this diamond on a dung hill, I can tell you that Christ your King is with you when you find yourself on the hill of the Skull. He is here even now, forgiving your sin so that you can live in right relationship with God, today and forever. He is here even now speaking these beautiful, gracious words to us, inviting us back to the paradise of the Garden, back to fellowship with God.
This king of our ours is a strange one, to be sure. He isn’t like any other king. But like that criminal beside him you can turn to him in every time of need, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re suffering. You can turn to him in faith and trust, and when you do you will see that he will love you to your very last breath and then some. He will indeed remember you, so that you can enter into the Paradise of his eternal kingdom.